Racism at its fundamental level is simply a “belief that certain races of men by birth and nature are superior to others.” Most, if not all groups seem to have a sect, whether large or small, covert or overt, militant or peaceful, that hold the belief that they are somehow better than another–whether they are in control politically or militarily or not. At the very least people can hold these views and do nothing with these views except discuss them with others who hold similar opinions. At most these beliefs can turn into job and housing discrimination, verbal taunting, and , sad to say, outright physical abuse and enslavement.
Why and how is it that in this day and age in which we live people can be turned into things? What underlies the enslavement of men, women, and children? What can so seer the conscious of a government (run by people) where they can see this going on and merely pay lip service or wink their eyes at it by passing laws they don’t enforce? What makes a racist a racist?
Most people who think of other peoples as inferior to themselves probably inherit this from their parents or someone very close to them. Children begin to notice variations among people around age two or so and if their parents enforce and reinforce stereotypes and prejudices, it might prove difficult for these attitudes to disappear by themselves. If fostered, this tendency will carry on into adulthood and can manifest in a variety of ways, racism being on of them, slavery being another. Children are selfish by nature. You don’t have to teach a child to be selfish; you have to teach them to share. We all like our things. “The most superficial glance at our civilization discloses the power of the concept of property, and a good deal of what is radically destructive to human potentiality in our own culture derives from its well-known preference for property rights over human rights.” (Kovel, Joelete) When people can be reduced to things for our personal use then racism comes very easy. We can see people as extensions of ourselves or as objects to do our bidding. Or we can choose not to “see” them; we can ignore them. If we can’t see them, we can’t be held responsible for them or to them. Kovel further describes dehumanization as a two-step process:
1. The formation of an idea of another living person as less than a person or an inanimate object, and
2. An action upon that person so as to sustain one’s dehumanized conception of him.
These two actions–the idea and the action–are utterly necessary to each other.
Racism and slavery still exist in this “enlightened” age in which we live. At its core, I believe it is a manifestation of a deep seated insecurity about one’s own self.
Shirley Sherrod, I believe, is a modern example of someone who has dealt with racism in her past, has dealt with it recently, and still displays a great deal of self-awareness, security, and grace.